The NBA is a puzzle of uncertainty this season and as the Knicks embarked on their first extended road trip the questions were more pressing than usual.
The familiar trappings of travel have been turned upside down by the specter of the pandemic which is still raging as teams have begun flying around the nation. But there were basketball questions, too. Were the Knicks the team that had beaten up on Milwaukee Sunday? And were the first team they were facing on the trip really the unbeaten Cleveland Cavaliers?
And maybe the biggest question is if Julius Randle is the player he has shown over the opening days of the season.
The Knicks brought the Cavs back to earth, jumping out to a 16-point first quarter lead and after Cleveland fought back, pulling away again for a 95-86 victory. Randle led the way with his first triple-double as a Knick, putting up 28 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists (barely avoiding a quadruple-double as he finished with nine turnovers).
It was Randle’s seventh career triple-double and his first since November 19, 2018.
"I just tried to take what the defense gave me, make the right plays," Randle said. "My teammates did a good job of being in position when the defense collapse. Made it easy for me to kick out. When they didn’t collapse I just tried to make sure to get to my spot to score. I got to cut down on my turnovers obviously. But overall I just try to play the game the right way and make the right plays and make everybody better as well.
"I think [Tom Thibodeau] from the start of training camp just did a great job of just implementing his system of how we want to play. We don’t have to second guess where we’re going to be on the floor. We have great spacing and if the defense is collapsing, I can depend on whoever it is to cut or to be in the right spacing. And just make the easy play. We’re all just trying to make the easy play, the right play, and play for each other unselfishly."
It’s hard to know what to make of this 2-2 start for the Knicks. They held the Cavs to 7-for-32 shooting from beyond the arc after Cleveland entered the night as the top three-point shooting team in the league. It echoed Sunday when the Knicks limited Milwaukee to 7-for-38 long-range shooting and the Bucks recovered Tuesday to set an NBA record with 29 three’s. The Knicks, who were among the worst in the league from beyond the arc last season are shooting 45.9 percent.
"I liked our energy," Thibodeau said. "Our defense is a work-in-progress. It’s still not where it needs to be. I thought it was a combination of things. I also thought they missed some wide open ones, too. But even when we’re making mistakes, we’re flying around, we’re making the attempt to get out there and challenge shots and it makes a difference."
What has the difference been for Randle? Thibodeau has maintained that it began with him reporting to camp in great shape.
"I just think we have the right people in place from top to bottom and they challenged me going into the offseason to come back a better player," Randle said. "Obviously I’m going to put that pressure on myself as well to challenge myself and get better every year. Last year was a great learning experience for me. But this year I’m coming back a better player and coming back in great shape.
"And that’s just part of the culture we’re building. Guys that are going to come out and fight and compete every day, top to bottom, not just the coaches, front offices, everybody. We’re competing and not backing down from anybody. That’s just the culture we try to create and compete every night."